By Richael Faithful
I “came out” when I was 14, about eleven years ago, as a teenager living in Northern Virginia. For the most part I was left alone by classmates, rarely at the other end of taunting or verbal abuse, and never at the other end of targeted violence. I had, and continue to have, very proud parents and friends—proud of whom I am, not necessarily of my “queer” identity. But I am aware that my affirmative experience as a LGBTQ person is relatively uncommon.
America has been recently awakened to this reality. Though minimized by stories of extreme gay and lesbian persecution overseas, the truth is that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer-identified or perceived young people in the U.S. face tremendous harassment, bigotry, and discrimination. And despite recent attention to this issue, there is another sad reality, particularly for young people: there is no federal law against bullying or harassment, even though the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 provided support for school safety, generally. In other words, LGBTQ identified or perceived students currently have no real protection against bullying under federal law.
Federal or state laws are not triggered until bullying or harassment leads to a criminal act, such as battery, assault, or stalking. Bullying may also rise to the level of racial, sexual, or disability harassment prohibited by civil rights laws that can be enforced by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. However, bullying in general, especially LGBTQ bullying, has traditionally been treated as a school administrative matter, in which too many administrators were either indifferent or ill-equipped to address mistreatment. A variety of national and local LGBTQ organizations have long-focused on this issue by offering supportive resources and fighting for protective legislation. At the forefront is Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN) which has been working with federal agencies and Congress for over a year, prior to recent tragedies, to pass two pieces of legislation: the Safe Schools Improvement Act and Student Non-Discrimination Act. Both bills are designed to require school districts receiving federal funds to prohibit LGBTQ bullying, and adopt LGBTQ non-discrimination policies. Although such laws cannot dictate progressive thinking about LGBTQ people, they can bring federal power to bear to create safe, even affirming school environments for young LGBTQ people.
The law’s power cannot be under-estimated. During my senior year in high school, I and several friends founded a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA), with the help of a regional safe schools organization. GSAs are student organizations intended to create comfortable LGBTQ spaces and build positive relationships among students along the sexuality and gender continuum. GLSEN provided important resources for us to organize the organization against strong parental opposition, including our legal rights under the Equal Access Act, which guarantees free speech and non-discrimination rights in public school extra-curricular activities. Protective laws can translate into meaningful quality-of-life changes for LGBTQ young people. That is why young LGBTQ people and their supporters are working toward this goal.
Any person who has been shocked and heartbroken about the recent, high-profile cases of LGBTQ suicides and violence against young people should share these resources in your communities. As one of my favorite LGBTQ organizations, Southerners on New Ground, pointed out, all young people, especially marginalized LGBTQ young people, need us to fight for them, and fight with them. Equally important, we need to help them make things better by creating a culture of acceptance, honesty, and integrity.
Please share these resources today.
• GLSEN, What Can You Do To Make a Positive Difference
• The Trevor Project, Suicide Prevention Resources
• Parents, Families, and Friends for Gays and Lesbians (PFLAG), Open letter to Youth
• Safe Schools Coalition, Resources for LGBTQ Youth of Color
Richael Faithful is a third-year student at American University Washington College of Law. She is Editor-In-Chief of The Modern American, a legal publication dedicated to diversity and the law. She is also a former community organizer with the Virginia Organizing Project. As a law student she continues organize and advocate for radical, transformative change.
(Photo by quixoticlife.)